Tag Archives: criminal justice reform

Felony thresholds out of committee

The Massachusetts Judiciary Committee released a bill favorably to increase the thresholds set 30+ years ago from $250 to $1500 to determine what constitutes a larceny felony. This is good news.

There are a few minor provisions that need tweaking, such as designating welfare fraud of $100 a felony. However, the bill is good news. Please connect with your state representative and senator [find them here] to endorse it when to comes out of Ways and Means.

Here’s a link to an article by the respected PEW foundation that shows raising the felony threshold does not increase crime. Raising the felony threshold  will make certain crimes a misdemeanor, which gives the perpetrators a second chance and doesn’t mark them a felon.

Justice and corrections systems reforms require a series of bills passed over a number of years. This is an important bill to prevent people from entering the corrections system, and have shorter sentences if they do.

While ‘affluenza’ teen went free, similar case led to prison

This Jan. 27, 2016 photo shows Jaime Arellano during an interview in the visitor’s room at the… Read more  [This story courtesy of The Marshall Project and the Associate Press]. 

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — One 16-year-old drove drunk, ran a red light and crashed into a pregnant woman’s car, killing her and her unborn child. Another drunken teenager rammed a pickup truck into a crowd of people assisting a stranded driver, killing four.

Jaime Arellano went to prison. Ethan Couch went free.

The stories of the two Texas teens illustrate how prosecutors’ decisions in similar cases can lead to wildly different outcomes. The poor immigrant from Mexico has been behind bars for almost a decade. The white kid with rich parents got 10 years of probation.

 Couch lost control as he drove his family’s pickup truck after he and his friends had played beer pong and consumed beer that some of them had stolen from Wal-Mart. The vehicle veered into a crowd of people helping the driver on the side of the road. Authorities later estimated that he was going 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.

The crash fatally injured the stranded motorist, a youth minister who stopped to help her and a mother and daughter who came out of their nearby home.

But prosecutors in Fort Worth said they didn’t ask to have his case moved to the adult system because they thought the judge would refuse. Instead, he stayed in juvenile court and became infamous for his psychologist’s assertion that his wealthy parents coddled him into a sense of irresponsibility the psychologist called “affluenza.”

Arellano was charged with intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault, the same counts against Couch. But prosecutors in Arellano’s case moved quickly after his June 2007 crash to send him to adult court. Arellano took a plea deal and got 20 years in prison, where he remains today.

Sending Arellano’s case to the adult system opened the door to the kind of punishment many say Couch should have received from the beginning.

Matt Bingham, the Smith County district attorney and head of the office that prosecuted Arellano, declined to comment on Couch’s case but said he considered adult prison to be a fair option for any teenager who has killed someone.

Juveniles don’t always commit “what people think of as juvenile crimes,” Bingham said. “There is an appropriate punishment for what they have done. And the fact that they’re 16 years of age doesn’t negate that.”

Arellano could never have argued he had “affluenza.”

Arellano and his family crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally two years before the crash and settled in East Texas. He spoke little English and had little knowledge of the court system. Five months before the crash, he dropped out of high school.

Now 24, he spoke to The Associated Press about his case from behind a narrow glass partition at a Texas prison. Wearing a white inmate uniform, he spoke in soft, accented English that he said he learned while in prison.

Arellano had his first beer at 15 and had driven drunk a few times before. His parents tried to stop him from driving under the influence, but he said he wouldn’t listen.

“They talked to me way too many times,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to hear it.”

On the night of June 23, 2007, Arellano was driving an SUV through Tyler, about 100 miles east of Dallas, on his way to a party. He had an open beer and several more in a cooler.

Witnesses saw him swerve through the intersection and slam into a Ford Mustang making a left turn ahead, according to police reports.

Driving the Mustang was Martha Mondragon, a 31-year-old woman who was nine months’ pregnant. Mondragon and the child she was carrying were killed. Her 6-year-old daughter flew out of her booster seat and through a car window. She was hospitalized and survived.

Prosecutors quickly sought to have Arellano’s case moved to adult court, and a judge agreed.

At that point, Arellano faced two choices: a plea deal with the promise of 20 years in prison and possible parole after a decade, or a jury trial in one of the most conservative regions of the United States and the risk of 50 years in prison. He took the plea.

While he once thought he might have gotten probation if he were white, Arellano said he doesn’t feel that way today.

“I know it was serious,” he said. “It had to happen this way so I could better myself, so I could think better.”

Arellano becomes eligible for parole next year. Once released, he expects to be deported to Mexico, where he hopes to work on a ranch.

Couch faces possible detention for violating his probation when he returns to court on Feb. 19. Depending on the judge’s ruling, he could get three months in jail and adult probation, which if violated could land him in prison for up to 40 years.

In the juvenile system, intoxication manslaughter cases in Texas over the last decade were just as likely to result in probation as they are detention, according to figures from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Juvenile justice experts say the state’s juvenile system places more weight on rehabilitation than the adult system, where punishments are tougher.

Since 2005, Texas has prosecuted 38 juveniles for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault. Only three were sent to the adult system, and half of all cases resulted in probation of some kind.

Those numbers do not include juveniles who commit similar offenses but might be charged with different crimes or cases not reported by local authorities to the state.

Once juveniles are in detention, it’s more likely than not that they will go free when they turn 19. Only 33 percent of all juvenile offenders are sent to adult prison, according to a study of juvenile sentencing conducted by the University of North Texas professor Chad Trulson.

Trulson said a probation sentence for killing four people might seem “absurd” to the average person.

But in the juvenile system, he said, that type of sentence for intoxication manslaughter and potentially more serious offenses “is probably more typical than we would think.”

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Follow Nomaan Merchant on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nomaanmerchant .

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This story has been corrected to show that Mondragon was 31, not 33.

PEW study might do some good in MA

Alaska Draws Up Plans to Reduce Expanding Prison Population
Date:  01-20-2016

Recommendations include re-examining the bail bond system and revising drug laws

The Alaska Dispatch News reported that the Alaska Criminal Justice Commission has released recommendations on how to curb the state’s overly populated prison system. The Commission was aided byPew Charitable Trusts in drawing up the plans.

According to the Dispatch News, besides collecting data to measure the effectiveness of new laws and policies, and installing an oversight council, the recommendations include:

  • Expanding the use of citations in place of arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses.
  • Deciding whether to release someone before trial based on the likelihood they’ll return for subsequent hearings or commit other crimes, instead of on their ability to pay a monetary bond. A review of court files showed the majority of cases required some type of monetary bond and “52 percent of sampled defendants were detained for the entirety of their pretrial period,” the report says.
  • Focusing resources on high-risk defendants — those who are “most likely to fail” or reoffend, the report says. More restrictive release conditions would be reserved for these offenders.
  • Limiting the use of prison space for low-level misdemeanor offenders by reclassifying some misdemeanors and violations, including changing disorderly conduct laws to allow for arrests but limit jail time to 24 hours, among other changes, the report says.
  • Revising drug penalties to focus the most severe punishments on serious drug crimes. Among the specific actions recommended, lawmakers are encouraged to reclassify the simple possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine as a misdemeanor.
  • Implementing a specialty parole option for long-term, geriatric inmates.
  • Incentivizing treatment for sex offenders with sentence reductions for completing treatment

Mental health and Michelle Alexander

Join EMIT on Thursday, Dec. 3 at the Maynard Town Hall, 195 Main Street, to discuss how mental health is treated in prisons, and the relationship to drug addiction. Joining in the conversation are police chiefs from Arlington, Hudson, and Maynard as well as Sarah Abbott, director of the jail diversion program for Advocates, Inc. Three legislators will weigh in on the discussion: State Senator Jamie Eldridge, and State Representatives Sean Garballey and Kate Hogan.

The event is 7-830 pm with light refreshments, and is free and open to the public. The cosponsors are the Maynard and Hudson Democratic Town Committees.

Join EMIT on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 6-7:30 pm at the Hazlett Room of the Winthrop Public Library,  2 Metcalf Square for a showing of the 23-minute TEDx talk by Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” A discussion will follow, with free refreshments offered.

Sponsored by EMIT and hosted by the Winthrop Public Library. For information on either event, contact emit.susan@gmail.com, 978-772-3930.

Action you can take to influence the Judiciary Committee

The Judiciary Committee is now evaluating bills to reform the Commonwealth’s judicial and correctional systems. YOU CAN INFLUENCE this process in several ways.

1. Pledge to attend the June 9 hearing, 1 pm at the Gardner Auditorium of the Statehouse to show support for reform. Sign up here or show up at 12:45 pm at the Statehouse.

2. Print out multiple copies of this action letter. Invite others to sign individual letters. Mail them to EMIT, C/o Susan Tordella, 5 Hedgeway St. Ayer, MA 01432. EMIT will deliver them in person to the Judiciary Committee members. Or deliver the letters in person to Judiciary Committee members.

3.Call or email members of the Judiciary Committee and encourage other voters to do the same,  to encourage legislators to support criminal justice reform, especially the bills in the action letter

Here are the Judiciary Committee members, positions and contact information.

The legislators with NONE beside their names really need to hear that we support reform. 

Key (bills Sponsored -SP or Co-sponsored):
MM:    End Mandatory Minimums
PT:      Pre-Trial and Bail Reform
Just:   Justice Reinvestment Act
Care:   Caretaker Act
Exp:    Expungement
RJ:      Restorative Justice
Extra:  Extraordinary Medical Release

William Brownsberger, D-Belmont – Chair    617-722-1280  William.brownsberger@masenate.gov
MM, Just, Exp, RJ,
Sen. John Keenen, D-Quincy – Vice Chair NONE   617-722-1494     john.keenan@masenate.gov
Sonia Chang Diaz, D-Boston           617-722-1673     sonia.change-diaz@masenate.gov
PT, MM, Just -SP
Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville         617-722-1578     patricia.jehlen@masenate.gov
PT, MM, Care-SP, Exp, RJ, Extra -SP
Cynthia Creem, D-Newton               617-722-1639     cynthia.creem@masenate.gov
MM- SP, Just
Sen. Richard Ross, R-Wrentham             NONE   617-722-1555     richard.ross@masenate.gov
Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford- Chair   NONE     617-722-2396     john.fernandes@mahouse.gov
Claire Cronin, D-Easton – Vice Chair                       617-722-2396     claire.cronin@mahouse.gov
PT, MM, Just, RJ Extra
Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut    NONE       617-722-2380     colleen.garry@mahouse.gov
Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield     NONE       617-722-2582     john.vellis@mahouse.gov
Michael Day, D-Winchester                        617-722-2582     michael.day@mahouse.gov
MM, RJ
Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem          NONE          617-722-2400     paul.tucker@mahouse.gov
Rep. James Lyons, R-Andover    NONE          617-722-2450     james.lyons@mahouse.gov
Jeffrey Roy, D-Franklin                     617-722-2020     jeffrey.roy@mahouse.gov
Pre-Trial, MM, RJ
Evandro Carvalho, D-Dorchester      617-722-2460     evandro.carvalho@mahouse.gov
MM, Just
Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield         617-722-2080     carlos.gonzalez@mahouse.gov
PT, MM, Just, Care
Sheila Harrington, R-Groton              617-722-2305     shiela.harrington@mahouse.gov
PT

What´s happening at the State House this term

Here´s a post from Commonwealth about Statehouse power positioning.

April 2, 2015

Rules debate puts Beacon Hill on hold

The MBTA isn’t the only state entity that’s been operating with significant delays. The movement of legislation on Beacon Hill has been ground to a halt by a debate on internal rules that is fraying nerves no less than February’s frozen subway switches and iced-over third rails.

At issue is the process by which bills move from committees to the two legislative chambers, a structure that senators say has increasingly weakened their branch in a system that is supposed to be one of legislative co-equals. The two chambers have been trying to negotiate a resolution of their differences for several weeks, and tempers are starting to get short.

Almost all legislation on Beacon Hill, whether filed by a senator or a representative, is initially directed to joint committees made up of members of both branches. The joint committees hold hearings where the pros and cons of a bill are first aired. It takes a majority vote of the committee to then advance a bill to one of the two chambers. But since the 160-member House has nearly twice as many members on the 25 joint committees as the 40-member Senate (the usual makeup is 11 representatives and six senators), House members effectively control the movement of bills out of committees.

Senators have said delay tactics are increasingly being used to bottle up bills House leaders aren’t eager to see advance. The solution unanimously endorsed by the Senate in February was to change the rules governing joint committees so that House and Senate members could, with a majority vote of just the members of their branch, send any bill back to the branch where it originated. Though the rule would apply to both House and Senate members, it is senators, who are at a numerical disadvantage when the committees vote as a whole, who are eager to see the change.

House leaders have shown no interest in such a change. Speaker Robert DeLeo called the proposal a “non-starter” last month.

Senate President Stan Rosenberg has taken to social media to explain the Senate’s view on the rules debate. He posted on his website a “Message on the Joint Rules,”coauthored with Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and Sen. Mark Montigny, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. They said the joint committee structure is an efficient way of holding hearings on bills. “This arrangement, however, is not living up to its full potential,” they wrote. Bills move slowly out the joint committees, and “many don’t come out of committee at all,” they wrote.

The problem began worsening, Rosenberg told the State House News in early March, when the Legislature moved 20 years ago to a system that allows bills to carryover from the first year of each two-year legislative session to the second without being refiled or having a new hearing. Before the change, bills were filed each January and had to have a hearing by April of that year. Under the new system, bills are filed in January of the first year of the two-year session, with rules mandating only that a hearing be held by March of the following year. The Legislature also modified its schedule to end its formal sessions on July 31 of that second year, which means bills might have only a four-month window during the two-year session in which they must be directed out of the committee where they were first heard.

Rosenberg and many senators also sent out last week via Twitter a graphic that shows how bills move — and often don’t move — through the Massachusetts Legislature. “This hurts efficiency and makes your government less effective,” the reads the text accompanying the graphic.

House leaders have not taken well the airing out so publicly of an issue that is one of the ultimate inside-baseball matters on Beacon Hill.

DeLeo’s office declined to comment. But House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, the lead House negotiator in the six-person conference committee of representatives and senators trying to resolve the rules standoff, sounded off earlier this week.

“I was extremely disappointed that the Senate president had gone on Twitter,” Mariano told reporters outside a State House hearing room on Tuesday after testifying on several revenue bills. He suggested that taking internal debates like this public could damage the working relationship between the two branches.

Behind the battle is an unfolding dynamic that has set the two branches on something of a collision course. The House has been tilting more toward the political center in recent years, while the Senate has been adding members eager to advance a full-throated liberal agenda on everything from taxation to criminal justice reform. But a good deal of the standoff goes beyond any ideological differences, as evidenced by the endorsement of the proposed rule change by the Senate’s six Republicans.

State House observers say the House has become increasingly wary of taking on controversial issues that could force representatives to take tough votes. House members, with districts only one-quarter the size of their Senate counterparts, are seen as more vulnerable to challengers who don’t face as daunting a fundraising or organizational task as would-be challengers for Senate seats.

The two chambers are also being guided by legislative leaders at very different stages of their reign. While DeLeo has been firmly ensconced for six years — and recently got his members to abolish the eight-year term limit on his office that had been in place — Rosenberg just took the gavel as Senate president in January and is eager to make his mark. What’s more, across their long legislative careers, Rosenberg has been a more policy-focused pol than DeLeo, so he already comes to power with an interest in a more activist approach to the legislative process, an inclination shared by an increasing share of his issue-oriented Senate members.

The Senate proposal would do nothing to change the fact that any bill must win a favorable vote in both branches before going to the governor’s office. But allowing the Senate to control and pass its own bills means measures that now often seem lost in the legislative ether — sent to a “study,” often termed the “legislative graveyard,” or tied up through other tactics — would now be awaiting House action. Groups advocating particular bills could then direct their lobbying efforts — and public campaigns — at the branch where action on a piece of legislation is needed.

Rosenberg declined to comment on the ongoing rules debate, with his office citing the sensitivity of ongoing negotiations. Neither Tarr, the Republican minority leader, nor Montigny, who is the lead Senate negotiator in the conference committee, would comment.

If an agreement can’t be reached, the Senate could resort to the so-called “nuclear” option of ending the joint committee structure and establishing a separate Senate committee for each issue area.

That would, in fact, put Massachusetts in the mainstream. Forty-six states operate with separate committees in each branch, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Just Maine and Connecticut share the joint committee structure that Massachusetts uses. And only Maine requires a vote of the entire committee to move a bill forward. Connecticut uses the system Massachusetts senators are proposing, with joint committees but with each branch able to control the flow of its own bills.

It’s not likely to be suggested by either branch, but one way to resolve the standoff would be to do away with our two legislative branches altogether and join Nebraska, the one state with a unicameral legislature.

–MICHAEL Jonas

Next steps toward reforming the Mass. justice system

THANKS TO YOU, regular voters who care, EMIT and UU Mass Action Network, delivered 700-plus

Massachusetts statehouse and state legislators have passed dozens of bills to fill our prisons and  jails. These bills often discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, income, social class, education, mental health and drug and substance addiction and abuse

The Statehouse is where we need to encourage lawmakers to pass a series of bills over a number of years to untangle the injustice of mass incarceration in Massachusetts.

letters to state lawmakers in January 2015 asking them to cosponsor criminal justice reform, especially to end mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses and to reform pre-trial practices — what happens when someone gets arrested, and on what basis do we decide to incarcerate them, without being found guilty.

Reaching out to state lawmakers, especially representatives in face-to-face meetings, is one of the most effective ways to make our voice heard in future laws. This is the goal of EMIT.

We especially need voters to visit with state representatives in Springfield, New Bedford and Fall River, Plymouth-Cape Cod-The Islands, and Cape Ann/The North Shore. Can you join us? Please email emit.susan at g mail dot com. Our strategy is simple and issues can easily be understood and communicated to state legislators.

Thanks to the leadership of the State Senate President Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, the 40 members of the State Senate may be on board with criminal justice reform this legislative session. In 2015, we must focus on the 160 state representatives, and meet with them personally, in their home districts, with constituents like you and a few friends. You can meet at the public library or town hall for 30 minutes and share your urgency to end mass incarceration now.

EMIT is also co-sponsoring events to inform to reform so people feel more knowledgeable when meeting with state representatives.

Save March 28 in Amherst, 10 am to 2 pm at the UCC Church, 165 Main St. Featured speakers are Sen. Stan Rosenberg, who will give more details on justice reinvestment and State Sen. Jamie Eldridge who will describe some pending criminal justice reform bills. Formerly incarcerated people will share their stories, and participants will have time to network. Sponsored by EMIT and Social Justice Committee of Amherst UCC.

Save March 12 in New Bedford and April 16 in Springfield for additional events. More info to come.

In Arlington, on Saturday, March 14, 1-4:30 pm, attend a Road Map towards Justice: How to End Mass Incarceration in Massachusetts, at First Parish Unitarian Universalist 630 Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington.

Come learn about the bills related to mass incarceration and prison reform that might become law in the next two years, and how you can help make our criminal justice system more fair and effective.  You will hear from experts, receive fact sheets, and have time to connect with others and digest what you are learning.  Speakers include Rep. Dave Rogers, Rep. Sean Garballey, Barbara Dougan, Andrea James, Jon Tetherly, and EPOCA members.  Refreshments served too!

RSVPs to end-mass-incarceration@firstparish.info are appreciated but not required.

This interactive workshop is organized by the Mass Incarceration Working Group of First Parish Arlington and co-sponsored by the Criminal Justice Policy Coalition, End Mass Incarceration Together, EPOCA (Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners Organizing for Community Advancement), Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Mystic Valley Branch of the NAACP,